It’s not worth the $8.99/lb, I promise
Kitchen culture is gritty and sketchy. Cooks will often be perpetually drunk or clinically insane, health codes will be violated on the regular, dishwashers will be screwing waitstaff in the walk-in coolers, etc. (If you haven’t already read Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain, definitely do so. All of it is true.) I have no complaints about any of that. Aside from the rabid sexism, I love kitchen culture for exactly what it is. By complaining about the Whole Foods kitchens, I’m not complaining about kitchen culture on the whole. Despite its grimy, foul-mouthed eccentricity, kitchen culture is functional. Even when high on egregious amounts of cocaine, real back-of-house staff know how to move quickly and stay out of each others’ ways, etc. In Whole Foods kitchens, that’s not at all the case. And you deserve to know that, so here are just a few of the unsavory realities about how Whole Foods’ Prepared Foods teams function. Most are specific to the store where I work, but from what I’ve seen and heard, they apply to Whole Foods stores across the country.
- First and foremost, no one knows how to cook. There are some line cooks who call themselves chefs but have no knife skills to speak of and can’t even recognize basic ingredients or techniques. And there’s no training to remedy that. Last week I gave my easiest, simplest recipe to one of the team’s best cooks. It had five simple ingredients and three simple steps, which I typed up clearly and specifically. He literally had to just sauté garlic, throw in some greens, stir them until wilted and add two seasonings. He didn’t even almost get it right.
- The chicken salad, like a large percentage of our food, comes out of a plastic bag that’s shipped to us from the regional kitchen in another state. No one who works there can cook, either.
- All the soups also come out of a plastic bag and are heated by being submerged in boiling water for long periods of time. I repeat, the plastic bags are boiled in water at length. Plastic bags full of hot bar food are also put into the steamer for long periods of time, as are hotel pans wrapped in thick layers of cellophane. We have policies forbidding us from letting an organic tomato touch a pan that’s come into contact with conventional tomatoes, but we don’t give a fuck about chemicals leaching into our food from melting plastic.
- The turkey for the curried turkey salad comes to us in a big, cylindrical tube of processed meat mush wrapped in plastic. Even once the plastic is removed, it remains in its bizarre meat-cylinder shape until being cut up for the salad.
- The majority of food that we do produce in our kitchen is cooked by one singular method: being chucked in the steamer and forgotten about for an hour or so. As a result, the food is often mushy, color-drained and tasteless. Often we steam items when it doesn’t even make sense to do so. For example, people here will cook quinoa in the steamer even though it takes half the time and no extra effort to cook it in a pot on the stove.
- Our executive chef (of the CHP store) is the most incompetent, obnoxious, lazy impediment to the success of our kitchen. He’s definitely not the only reason why our kitchen is a dismal clusterfuck, but he’s a significant part of that equation. Everyone in the store hates him and wants him fired, but because of the painfully difficult web of corporate politics required to fire a Whole Foods higher-up, he’s still there. I once had to explain to him what pasta primavera was. Because he was insisting I smother it in pizza sauce (which also comes out of a bag.)
- There are major problems with Whole Foods stores, and especially their kitchens, having cultures of sexual harassment. This varies from store to store, but the store where I work is a prime example. One dude will follow me into the walk-in cooler and turn off the light until I start screaming, another will only refer to me as “baby” although I repeatedly ask him to call me by my name, one will whistle and cat-call me from three feet away, one will take pictures of girls’ asses as they bend over and then run to the bathroom to jerk off, one will stare at girls and announce that he’s daydreaming about them, many will say really disgusting shit behind our backs, etc. etc. etc. etc. etc. Unfortunately, this is common in kitchens in general. But Whole Foods handles it particularly poorly, especially for a company that claims to be all about values, ethics, and “team member happiness and success.” In short, the bosses don’t give a fuck. Regardless of how many women come forward admitting that they don’t feel safe at work due to sexual harassment, the bosses refuse to take action. Even when there are formal investigations launched and beyond sufficient grounds to fire the offenders, the bosses refuse to take action.
- One golden rule of the culinary world is “Thou shalt tasteth everything thou makest, in order to make sure it doesn’t suck. If it does suck, thou shalt adjust/fix it, taste it again to ensure acceptability, have someone else taste it for verification, and only then put it forth to be served.” Here, no one ever tastes their food. I’ve worked here for almost a year and I haven’t seen one person taste their food. This is not an exaggeration. As a result, we have customers come forward and say “Excuse me, the brussel sprouts on the hot bar are completely uncooked”- and they’re right. Some of the shit we put out there is literally inedible.
- The recipes we have to make are mostly awful- amateur combinations of flavors and textures that don’t make any sense- and the recipe sheets are so full of errors that no one follows them. There’s an upcoming policy change that will require us to follow them to a T, but we don’t have the equipment to make that happen. For example, every ingredient quantity is measured out in pounds, so you’ll have to measure 0.165lbs of chopped garlic and 0.003lbs of dried thyme. We only have one working scale in the kitchen, and it’s always being used by the pre-pack crew, so there’s no way for everyone to measure out every ingredient. Also, about half of our kitchen staff aren’t proficient in English, and there are no plans to have recipes translated into Spanish. And no one understands basic technical terms like “julienne” in the first place. Everyone makes every recipe a different way; there’s no consistency. So how we’re supposed to diligently follow recipes and ensure nutritional/procedural accuracy is anyone’s guess.
- Training is minimal to non-existent. On my two training days, I had to shadow the salad bar person. I was confused because I was hired as a line cook and then promoted to run pop-up programs, and no one had clarified to me “You’ll be shadowing salad bar today, but that’s completely different from the job you’ll actually do here.” I did my first training in Spanish because the person I was shadowing didn’t speak English. At the time, my Spanish was more basic than a Northface and a pumpkin spice latte. Then on my first real day working, they gave me five big recipes to make and I hadn’t even been shown where any of the cooking equipment was. I’d been shown nothing that actually related to the job I had to do. I’ve switched stations and roles multiple times, and each time I’ve been given none of the training required to make the switch. Then I’ve gotten yelled at for not knowing those things they didn’t tell me. I.e. “You didn’t turn in your schematic for the theme bar flip!” “What? How do I even make a schematic and turn it in?”
- There are no recipes for the hot bar dishes. The cooks look at the ingredients on the signs, and just wing it. This would be okay if any of them knew how to cook.
- None of the kitchen staff know how to move in a professional kitchen. In professional kitchens, you have to really hustle; if you don’t walk quickly, you’re holding people up and not getting your work done quickly enough. You have to walk with purpose rather than just aimlessly bumble around. You also have to be constantly aware of your spatial relation to the people around you; if you walk in one direction while looking in another direction, you can knock into someone carrying a sharp knife. You often have to move aside for people coming through with large or heavy objects. Relatedly, if you’re carrying a hazardous object like a knife or hot pan, you have to announce that loudly and clearly so as to warn others. In the Whole Foods kitchen, none of these standard practices are upheld. Everyone’s constantly in the way of everyone else, and that produces a lot of safety hazards while slowing down production for everyone.
- Items are constantly mis-labeled on the bars, which can be a dangerous liability. For example, my friend Jake got some vegan jambalaya for lunch one day, or so he thought. The sign said “vegan jambalaya” but when he took a bite, he discovered that it had all kinds of meat in it. Jake, a staunch vegan, was furious. He got sick because he hadn’t eaten meat in years and his stomach couldn’t digest it. The cooks who mislabeled it didn’t even begin to care, as none of them give a fuck about alternative diets/allergen issues (many don’t even know or care what ‘vegan’ means.) All vegan jokes aside, this is a huge liability. Had it been an allergen issue, Jake could have had an anaphylactic episode and died. In professional kitchens, there are things that can be dealt with a healthy dose of “fuck it” and things that need to be taken seriously. Don’t trust any signs or labels on the buffets.
- The focus is on quantity and gimmicky marketing programs rather than quality. The fact that no one knows how to cook is seen as irrelevant. In the eyes of the higher-ups, as long as a cook is pumping out enough recipes to keep the hot bar full, it doesn’t matter what that food looks or tastes like. Recently, a talented CIA graduate was hired as a line cook. Rather than getting positive feedback for actually turning out quality food, he was instructed to “take more shortcuts.” My bosses constantly tell me that in my sets, I should use lots of items that come out of plastic bags and are shipped from the regional kitchen. I plead with them to let me cook from scratch, arguing that when the food is made fresh with care, attention and high quality standards, it makes customers happy and sells a lot better.I daresay it’s common sense, but common sense has no place in the Whole Foods kitchen.
As long as customers keep buying the food- which right now is below the culinary level of a middle school cafeteria in rural South Dakota- things will remain like this.